“Conspiracy” is one of the most common federal charges brought by prosecutors. It covers everything from drug crimes to organized crimes and frauds. When protestors during the Black Lives Matter protests were arrested, they were charged with conspiracy. When pro-Trump protestors stormed the Capitol, they were charged with conspiracy. So, what is conspiracy?
Although there are federal conspiracy statutes spread throughout the U.S. Code, the two most common are 18 U.S.C. 372 making it illegal to conspire to defraud the United States or to violate any other federal law. 21 U.S.C. 846 prohibits conspiracies to manufacture, distribute, or possess with intent to distribute controlled substances. Regardless of the conspiracy statute involved, a conspiracy is basically an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime.
At least one member of the conspiracy must commit an “overt act”. An overt act is a substantial act towards the completion of the conspiracy, but the act itself need not be illegal. For example, if two people agree to rob a bank and one of the two purchases a ski mask for use in the conspiracy, the purchase of the mask would constitute an overt act even though there is nothing illegal per se in the purchase of a ski mask.
Prosecutors favor conspiracy charges because they cover a wide range of activity. The essence of a conspiracy is an agreement. The agreement need not be in writing or formal. There is also no need that the crime that was the object of the conspiracy actually be accomplished. Also, once a conspiracy is proven, every co-conspirator becomes liable for all crimes committed by the conspiracy even if the co-conspirators do not know each other and are unaware of some of the crimes being committed. In drug distribution conspiracies, for example, minor players who deliver small amounts of drugs are frequently held responsible for vast quantities of drugs.
Joining the Conspiracy
In order to be convicted as a co-conspirator, the person charged must actually join the conspiracy. That means that the individual involved must understand the conspiracy and agree to its goal. Knowledge or awareness of a conspiracy is not enough to make someone a co-conspirator. Even cheering on a conspiracy or hoping for the conspiracy’s success is not enough to make one a co-conspirator. A person would not be a co-conspirator if he or she watched the news on January 6th, 2021, and hoped that the rioters would accomplish their goals. That person would actually have to join the conspiracy.
Also, an individual forced to join a conspiracy would not be a co-conspirator. Duress is a common defense in both organized crime and narcotics conspiracy offenses. In many parts of the world, and even in some places in the United States, many people are actually forced into criminal activity, and their actions are not voluntary. These people are not co-conspirators.
Withdrawing from a Conspiracy
It is also possible for a co-conspirator to withdraw from a conspiracy. When a person withdraws from a conspiracy, he or she is no longer responsible for the actions of co-conspirators after they have withdrawn from the conspiracy.
Conspiracies are typically thought of as crimes; however, the government and private plaintiffs can and do pursue civil damages, and these civil cases can be as damaging as criminal offenses in many cases. One of the more common statutes used by the government and individuals alike is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). RICO is an extraordinarily powerful statute in the right circumstances. We have defended individuals and organizations sued for RICO violations, and we have sued entities that have engaged in corrupt activities that have damaged innocent companies and individuals. RICO is among the most complex of federal criminal and civil enforcement statutes, and even experienced conspiracy lawyers have trouble understanding all of the intricacies of the statute. We understand this statute and our civil and federal conspiracy attorneys are well-versed in the the processes of the legal system.